Maritime Studies In and Out of the Classroom

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards

“Map of the island of Nantucket, including Tuckernuck,” courtesy [CC BY 2.0 (

With rising sea level, global warming, sovereignty issues concerning the opening of the Northwest Passage, and the probable disappearance of an entire nation, the Maldives, the oceans are becoming increasingly important to contemporary life. Maritime Studies as a field has a new urgency. “The Hungry Ocean,” a conference held at the John Carter Brown Library in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2011, is but one example of the spate of seminars, articles, print and online journals, Maritime Studies programs, Marine Science departments, and scholarly works attesting to the growing importance of the oceans within the academic world.

Above all, I try to bring two elements into my teaching. The first is the importance of the maritime world. Maritime history has long been thought of as something quaint, something perhaps that British historians do, but not Americans, something redolent of Winslow Homer and the Gorton’s fisherman, something that may be important to New Englanders but to nowhere else in the United States. I teach students that roughly 90 percent of the world’s goods are transported by water. One interesting exercise is to have students try and figure out how much of their clothing and the contents of their backpacks was carried by ship. I remind students that Lewis and Clark were trying to find a water route across the continental United States. It is easier and cheaper to send goods by ship rather than by train, truck, or plane. I have students consider the very fact that transport is called shipping.

The second element I bring into my classroom is the importance of interdisciplinarity and the understanding that arises from integrating different disciplines. I have been lucky enough to teach for interdisciplinary experiential programs, including Maritime Studies at the University of Connecticut, the Williams College‒Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program, and the Sea Education Association. We visit sites of interdisciplinarity. One such is the island of Nantucket. The island’s history includes over-grazing by sheep, which led to the creation of heath vegetation. The coastal heathlands are now greatly valued, both ecologically, including the preservation of endangered species, and aesthetically. But heath is a secessional stage; if left to nature, the heathlands would secede to scrub-oak forests. Islanders have to set policy in order to preserve the heaths.

Another site is Cannery Row in Monterey, California. Before we travel to California, I have the students read

Cannery Row

and discuss John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. We then sit on steps overlooking Monterey Bay and consider the cyclic nature of sardines and anchovies that led to the historic boom and bust of the canneries along that section of ocean, the transformation of the rusting canneries into an industrial aesthetic that is mimicked by the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, the legal fights that led to the creation of the Monterey Peninsula Marine Protected Area, and the friendship between marine ecologist Ed Ricketts and writer John Steinbeck that resulted in the beautiful prose of their jointly written Sea of Cortez (1941) and Steinbeck’s fictional Cannery Row (1945), whose central character, Doc, is based on Ricketts. I take them on a walking tour that includes Ricketts’s lab, the canneries, Wing Chong Market, the vacant lot, and the site of Flora Woods’s Lone Star Café, all of which have their fictional counterparts in Steinbeck’s work. The onslaught of sight, sound, and smell gives the students a visceral and enduring reaction.

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

This semester we are considering the deep ocean. The students are learning about the geology and marine ecology of the deep ocean in their Marine Science classes. The existence of the Mid Atlantic Ridge was discovered during the HMS Challenger Expedition in 1872 when a team of scientists was investigating the future location for a transatlantic cable. The Challenger carried zoologists who were eager to settle the question of whether the deep oceans hosted fauna of great size and antiquity and/or members of lost races of living fossils. This History of Science coalesces with the students’ reading of Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea (1870), which foretold submarine technology and diving suits that had not yet been invented. All three disciplines are tied to geopolitics. Who owns the deep ocean? The Challenger Expedition, for example, brought up manganese nodules from the seabed, which are a leading commodity of deep-sea mining. UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) governs mineral exploitation on the 60 percent of the world seabed that lies beyond national jurisdictions. We finish with a chance for the students to don scuba gear in the pool at the University of Connecticut and experience how completely different the visceral experience of the undersea world is.

I include the deep ocean because it can be taught almost anywhere; it does not require travel to Nantucket or California. I encourage you to consider sites on your own campus. A colleague who teaches Literature of the Sea in the heart of the Midwest, far from the Great Lakes, takes her students to the water-treatment plant on her campus. Archives, libraries, and university art galleries also give an interdisciplinary approach to the maritime world.

28 May 2019

About the Author

Mary K. Bercaw Edwards is Associate Professor of English at the University of Connecticut.

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